How Nonprofits Can Test New Ideas Without New Funding

Working in the nonprofit sector often feels like swimming upstream – limited resources and limits to grants often get in the way of innovation. That’s why we’re excited about the prospect of Design Thinking as a tool to furnish innovation. While the for-profit sector has more money to sink into prototypes and pilots, there are easy ways for nonprofits to prototype and test new ideas without new funding.

The work nonprofits do is inherently focused on people. This is a strength when it comes to empathizing with the needs of a target community and generating possible solutions – two key elements in the Design Thinking process. Where we face problems is with limited resources. This makes it difficult to justify taking a risk and committing significant amounts of time and money into testing a new approach to a problem.

Here’s an example of how one rising social entrepreneur tested her idea with limited resources: 

Fatima Boozarjomehri set out to create a community-development project, but she did not have the backing of a nonprofit organization and only a small amount of seed money. She used the design thinking process to address a problem in her target community – young women in a part of rural Iran were not able to attend university.

Fatima started with the first two phases in the Design Thinking process – empathizing and ideation. She interviewed community members for months to see what they saw as obstacles to attending university. She then focused on obstacles that she would realistically be able address. She couldn’t alleviate systematic financial strains that make it difficult to afford university, but she could help young women better prepare for the university entrance exam. She closely examined the educational opportunities provided to the girls and discovered that a portion of the university entrance exam tested students’ knowledge on the English language, but none of the girls had access to English classes. Even though many students were proficient in other sections of the exam, they could not score high enough to gain acceptance because they consistently failed the English portion.

Once she identified this need, she began brainstorming different ways to address the problem. One of her ideas was to pay for the girls to attend English intensives in Tehran, a city of 8 million. She conducted interviews with the young women to determine if this would address the issue and learned that the culture shock of transplanting them into an urban environment would not be good for their learning.

Her next idea was to create her own intensive during the summer in the village. This was possible, but she had to come up with a way to minimize the cost of renting safe and accessible classrooms. She advertised her project in the local newspaper and asked community centers whether they would be interested in providing a free space. After finalizing a location for the classes and hiring instructors, she then held sample classes to micro-test that idea. Through these sample classes for 50-60 girls, she learned, that charging a small amount to attend would ensure a higher attendance than providing a free class. She also intuited that morning classes had much greater turnout than afternoon and evening classes. Only after these many tiny steps forward did she then have the confidence, evidence, and sharper image of how to implement a summer-long intensive for a much larger group of students.

Part of the reason testing seems so daunting is that we often imagine a technical prototype. A technical prototype answers the question “can the problem be solved this specific way?” This implies investing lots of resources into creating a realistic experience. While these terms are oriented towards designing technical products, we can easily imagine a scenario in the work of nonprofits. For instance, a technical prototype of a climate activism conference might cost $50,000 and take a year to plan. That’s a hard pill to swallow. What we miss in mentally jumping to this methodology of technical prototyping is a set of smaller steps we should take before this stage that not only require much less overhead, but also builds our confidence that our idea would be effective.

You likely already have the skills to break down your idea into manageable parts. For example, you could conduct interviews with members of your target community and gauge their receptibility to whatever proposed idea is being considered. Even before reaching out to set up interviews with community members, an even smaller step might be to write up sample profiles of the people who use your services and have a team of staff members simulate a response inspired by those profiles. Another small step would be to conceive of the smallest possible test experience and then another follow-up round of interviews. This could be as simple as conducting a survey to judge your community’s interest, or placing an announcement on your website or blog and seeing how people react, or even holding a micro-simulation of the service experience with a handful of participants.

Starting small is key and highly effective for fine-tuning a new approach to problems. This confidence and proof of results at a small scale may also help your organization apply to grants and programs to scale your project. The design thinking process should only be a tool to help us, not a burden to sink resources into unnecessary prototypes.

If you are interested in bringing this approach to your organization, please join us at our next Design Thinking Workshop in Washington, D.C.

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